Sunday, 8 June 2008

Saintsbury: second thoughts

I'm beginning to see why the 20th century went off George Saintsbury (see a couple of recent entries). I've been looking at another book of his essays, in which he writes on literary figures about whom I know nothing, like John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1853) and Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802-1839). Among Praed’s poems ‘the peerless Letter of Advice…is as much the very best thing of its kind as the Divine Comedy.’ Rashly, since I haven’t read Praed beyond Saintsbury’s extracts, I'd say that was unlikely.

It’s passages like the following, with enough quotation from Saintsbury’s admired works for us to get an idea of his judgement, that are really are a let-down. Is it just a change of taste since the Victorians (and some of my own English teachers) that makes this sort of poem seem childish and uninteresting?

I haven’t checked to see if F.R. Leavis commented on Saintsbury but I think he would have said S. was a dilettante, not serious. I 'm afraid such a judgement might have been partly fair. Saintsbury romps through the whole of literature, English and French, giving marks. ‘X is better than Y but not quite up to Z or his own later a.’ What often seems to count for him is that a work is the right length for its content, expressed without awkwardness, well-managed in prosody, well-balanced, moderate and sane; that the writer, in fact, writes like a gentleman (a criterion he explicitly invokes here and there). He sees reading as a source of pleasure and cultivation, a central aspect of the good life--the good life of leisure, that is--but not, perhaps, of anything more fundamental—such as life, or the quality of human relations, as Leavis would have it. But Leavis’s puritan criteria excluded a great deal of literature that most of us, and most critics, value.

Saintsbury in the end was prepared to violate all his gentlemanly criteria in valuing Hazlitt, about whom he was in a minority in being right. He was terrifically perceptive on pre-19th century writers, such as Milton (no gentleman); and in his judgment the best poet of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was another non-gent, Blake. Those were not the judgements of a dilettante.

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